Confessions of an Urban Principal/ The Final Approach
by Frank Murphy
Installment 1 of 8
The director of the Temple Educational Management Organization has developed his own appraisal system for the principals of the Partnership Schools. There are nine broad leadership objectives and a host of sub-goals described in the appraisal rubric. Each of the participating principals has been asked to submit a portfolio of work samples and other evidence to document the ways that they’ve met these objectives.
The portfolio I constructed consists of two binders filled with documents and artifacts that present a picture of my activities throughout this past year. Each binder is many inches thick. Teacher evaluations, professional development plans, budgets, memos, policy and procedural directives, parent sign-in sheets, grant proposals, school improvement plans, were but some of the documents that constituted the reams of paper filling these binders. John DiPaolo arrived around nine a.m. to review my portfolio. He poured over it for more than two hours.
There wasn’t much of an opportunity to sit with him during this period. I had planned a full schedule of activities for the morning. A number of unexpected events kept me even busier than I had anticipated when I scheduled my evaluation conference with John. Ellen and I had arranged to co-host an open house for the parents of next year’s kindergarteners. Unfortunately, she had to start without me. Trouble besieged me before I was able to exit the office. Corey’s new aide needed immediate help. He once again had punched his teacher in her stomach. I suggested to John that he read through the material I had presented to him in an empty classroom close to my office. I told him that when I was free, I would join him there.
I called Corey’s mother and informed her that I was suspending him for the remainder of the day. She was not happy when she arrived.
“How can you suspend a first grader?” These were her first words as she entered my office.
“I can’t stay home with him. I’m going to sue you. You can’t do this.”
This was the first time I had suspended her child even though he has punched staff members on more than one occasion. Since his return from the in-patient psychiatric facility, his outbursts of violent behavior have steadily increased. It was time to send him home for a day, if only to maintain his teacher’s sanity. As I dealt with Corey’s mother, I was reminded of how Cindy acted when Arthur was in first grade. She too screamed and made threats whenever she didn’t agree with how I handled Arthur’s misbehavior.
It was a while before Corey’s mom finally departed. After she left I went to Ellen’s room, where a dozen parents and caregivers of future kindergarten students awaited me. I introduced myself and briefly described our instructional program. There were a few questions, which I answered before taking my leave. The kindergarten teachers then escorted the parents to their classrooms.
I headed for the auditorium where the eighth graders were preparing for their graduation ceremony. The two eighth grade teachers had requested my presence. I arrived just as the teachers had finished organizing the students for the processional march. Soon after, Ellen joined us. The four of us spent the next half hour working out the details of the ceremony. It was decided that Ellen would announce each child’s name just before they walked down the center aisle. I stood in the front of the stage, where I greeted each student with a handshake and word of congratulations. Then they turned, walked up the steps and took a seat on the stage. We practiced this entrance several times until the students became too restless.
Before we wrapped up this practice session, Ms. Odum wanted to do a run-through of a dance routine with the students. The whole class was involved in this performance. Through their movements they would interpret the lyrics of a love ballad. It was to be the final act of the ceremony. This number would be dedicated to their parents.
At first I was skeptical of the idea of including this dance. I doubted that the eighth graders would want to act out through dance, the words of song. I thought they would either be embarrassed or think that it was stupid. Was I ever wrong! After they ran through their performance, I had tears in my eyes. Every one of them had fully engaged in participating in the number. They were incredibly enthusiastic. I thought that their parents would love it. I felt parental pangs of my own. I have shared a lot of special moments with these children. I am already starting to miss them.
John DiPaolo left around noon. He had another appointment. “I’ve got to run. I really enjoyed looking through your appraisal book. You have some really interesting things in it. I will get a written response to you later.”
The day before, I had looked through the binder myself. I was impressed by how much had been accomplished this year. I, along with my leadership team, had given much effort to supporting our teachers. Through regular coaching, professional development and mentoring activities, we have helped them to do a better job in their classrooms. Collectively, these efforts helped to make the school year a successful experience for everyone.
The number of our students who are reading at or above grade level has significantly increased. This by itself is strong evidence that our instructional program is improving with each passing year. The minutes of a year’s worth of meetings: grade level, student support and leadership teams, all tell a story of a school team that has been focused and productive. As I reviewed the history of this school year, I was amazed by how much we have stayed on track with our instructional program. There was so much energy expended at times pushing back the assault of the Electric Slide, that I had doubted whether we would ever get our job done. We have. This year’s journey is almost finished and everyone’s attention has begun to focus on the much-anticipated arrival at the terminal. Like a plane making its final approach, our forward momentum has slowed almost to the point where it feels as if we might stall. But still we hang in there. The sounds and preparations in the school are those of the final approach.